HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSONS (HSP): latest research on Sensory Processing Sensitivity, summarized in Nov. 2017 by Elaine N. ARON, who developed the HSP concept in psychology
[ARON’s first book, „The Highly Sensitive Person“, was a bestseller in the U.S. in the early 1990’s. Since then, a very interesting alternative school of psychotherapeutic thought and practice has developed around her work. Realizing whether someone is HSP or not is a key to many aspects of his/her personal and interpersonal life, including: response to traumatic events, harmony or dysharmony in couple life and specific needs within psychotherapy. The 27-point “HSP scale” referred to below can be found on www.hsperson.com under “self-test”.]
“Actually, there is so much more research being done, especially in Europe, that I can barely keep up, so I have selected what I believe to be the best. You will see Michael Pluess’ name on several. He is at Queen Mary University in London, along with Francesca Leonetti, a postdoctoral student studying with him. They are doing great research, finding new angles to SPS (which is the term used in scientific contexts for your trait), developing the HSP Scale in various ways, and adding new points to what we know. We are so glad they are moving forward in this way. It takes some of the weight off of Art and me, as we see quality research being done without us!
1. First I will discuss articles in which I was one of the authors.
A. The “Relationship between the Temperament Trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Emotional Reactivity” was published in 2016, in the journal Social Behavior and Personality. The first author is Jadzia Jagiellowicz, along with Art and me. It is based on data Jadzia gathered while at Stony Brook University. (She is now in Cambridge, Ontario. https://www.highlysensitivesociety.com/ ). 96 participants (1/2 HSPs and 1/2 those especially low on the HSP Scale) rated standard emotional-arousing pictures for how positive and negative they seemed and how aroused the participant was by looking at them. HSPs rated the pictures, and especially the positive ones, as significantly more intense emotionally. They also responded faster to the positive pictures. HSPs who reported having high-quality parenting also reported greater arousal in response to positive pictures than those low in sensitivity.
These results give us some insight as to why HSPs exhibit “differential susceptibility,” suffering more in bad environments but doing especially well in good ones. It seems that in good environments they may pay more attention to positive stimuli relative to negative and react more strongly. This is even more so if they have had good parenting, when they must have paid particular attention to positive experiences, probably some of them quite subtle such as a parent’s slight smile of approval or delight.
B. The study, “Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Childhood Quality’s Effects on Neural Responses to Emotional Stimuli” by Bianca P. Acevedo, Jadzia Jagiellowicz, myself, Robert Marhenke, and my husband Art was just published (actually “in press” at this moment) in Clinical Neuropsychiatry. It is kind of a sister study for the one above, using 14 participants, women as it happened, half very high and half very low on the HSP Scale, and finding very similar results, but using a different method, measurement of brain activation. This is a case of triangulation—getting the same result with different methods, which is especially appreciated in science. The 14 women were viewing positive and negative images as compared to neutral ones, as in the last study, and took the same measure of quality of childhood parenting. I will not recite for you the technical names for the areas of the brain activated, but in each case these are the areas that were different for those who were high versus low on the HSP Scale.
For all images, not surprisingly to us, HSPs compared to the others showed more activation in areas associated with emotion, emotional memories, and emotion processing. For positive pictures (compared to neutral ones), SPS was more associated with areas involved in reward processing, self-other integration, calm, and satiation. This was even more the case the happier the childhood. For negative images (compared to neutral), some of the areas were the same (having to do with processing generally) but others were as you would expect with negative emotion, but again, many areas were different or increased for HSPs. However, a result of particular importance was, again, how much viewing the negative images was affected by having a better childhood, in that there was more activation in areas involved in emotion regulation and self-control.
In sum, throughout the study, HSPs showed more brain activation while looking at